What Do You Call a Word That Can Mean Two Opposite Things?
A riddle for keen-eyed readers and writers.
My husband and I have been working on a new novel together, a Stephen King-esque supernatural thriller called The Divide, about a town in the Rocky Mountains where bodies accidentally become separated from their souls — and subsequently go to war with each other.
In the process of writing the book, we’ve naturally used a lot of different words for “divide” — split, sunder, rend, sever, and so on.
But one word, cleave, turned out to be especially interesting, because it has two definitions with exactly opposite meanings.
Cleave can mean to divide or split, but it can also mean to adhere or join together.
In this case, the double meaning perfectly reinforces the theme of our book — that some things should never be divided, and sometimes the whole really is stronger than its individual parts.
Cleave also turns out to be one of a number of words called “contranyms” or an “auto-antonyms”— words with two opposite meanings. These are also known as “Janus words,” named after the Roman god with two faces that looked in opposite directions.
Other examples of contranyms?
Dust can mean to wipe up dust-or dust-like particles, or it can mean to sprinkle with dust-like powder — to “dust” cookies with cinnamon.
Fast can mean moving quickly, or it can mean being fixed in place — “Hold fast!”
Fine can mean the very best of something — “Fine linen!” — or it can mean merely adequate — “The service was fine, nothing special.”
Obbligato, in music, means a passage that is either obligatory or optional. (WTAF?)
Original can mean authentic and old, the very first of something — “This is the original version.” — or it can mean something brand new and inventive — “This is so original!”
Oversight can mean an accidental omission — “It was merely an oversight.” — or it can mean close scrutiny — “This workplace needs more oversight.”
Sanction can mean to approve — “The board gives sanction to this action.” — or to penalize — “We are imposing sanctions!”
Weather can mean to be exposed to the weather and deteriorate — “This house is so weathered.” — or it can mean to endure and withstand hardship or the elements — “We weathered the storm!”
Pretty cool, huh?
Feel free to add more examples in the comments.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out his other newsletter about his travels at BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com.